Monthly Archives: July 2013

World Write — an educational charity that produces excellent videos made by volunteers in East London — invited me to appear on their talk show about environmental movies and emotionalism recently. The three films discussed were The Age of Stupid, An Inconvenient Truth, and The Day After Tomorrow.

Movie chat has rarely captured what’s at stake so effectively as this bar room banter. In a discussion on three well known apocalyptic eco-films, An Inconvenient truth, The Day after Tomorrow and Age of Stupid, a trio of guest experts take us beyond the usual finger pointing at doom-mongers. A palette of emotions: fear; loss and regret, are used to shortcut politics and convince us to change our behaviour or be seen as morally circumspect. Worse still, we learn, these films portray us as unable to deal with problems altogether. This is environmental determinism summed up; what matters to ecologists is what the climate or science will make us do, not what we decide we want to do about our future. Our options to think big, take control and develop what we need to manage climate change should we want to, are closed down. Given their hysterical claims of looming catastrophe, planetary extinction and ice ages it’s revealing that all we are advised to do is change a light bulb. Treating us like children consigned to the ‘naughty step’, as a scourge on the planet and ultimately ‘stupid’, these films are profoundly anti-human. While these films resemble ‘the rant you’d get from an eco-warrior in a pub’ we’re told, they nonetheless represent ‘the full download of prevailing perceptions’. These films are worth discussing because they represent a political culture that needs to be challenged if we are serious about reclaiming the idea of destiny as something we should control.

Here’s the result.

My post over at the Nottingham University ‘Making Science Public’ blog has ruffled some feathers. This was caused in no small part by Mike Hulme’s intervention:

Ben Pile is spot on. The “97% consensus” article is poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. It obscures the complexities of the climate issue and it is a sign of the desperately poor level of public and policy debate in this country that the energy minister should cite it. It offers a similar depiction of the world into categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to that adopted in Anderegg et al.’s 2010 equally poor study in PNAS: dividing publishing climate scientists into ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’. It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?

We see now why many environmentalists are so hostile to debate. Permitting debate — even giving the possibility of debate a moment’s thought — shatters the binary opposing categories that have been established in lieu of an actual debate of substance on climate change and what to do about it. The division of the debate into scientists versus deniers is a strategy, but one which has worn thin, as Davey’s performance on The Sunday Politics show revealed, and which Hulme alludes to.

It gets worse for the polarisers. Judith Curry echoes Hulme’s remark:

Ben Pile’s characterization of ‘consensus without an object’ is spot on IMO; this has degenerated into the use of ‘consensus’ by certain individuals as a power play for influence in the policy and political debate surrounding climate and energy policy.

It’s long past time to get rid of the concept of ‘consensus’ on climate change. An excerpt from the Conclusions to my paper No Consensus on Consensus:

Judith Curry’s longer discussion about the consensus is here.

It has been somewhat gratifying that almost all of the criticism of my post I have seen so far is from angry trolls, mostly on twitter, but one or two popped up to comment on the post. From what I can tell their argument is circular: it is irresponsible to give air/blog time to sceptics because there’s a strong scientific consensus that says they’re wrong.

Martin Lack made a more reasonable (and more dignified) attempt to defend the paper. Nuccitelli himself turned up, after some demanding that he be given a right to reply… As though the comment boxes weren’t sufficient to make his case.

This entire blog post made my head spin. After reading nearly every sentence I thought to myself “I already addressed this misconception in the articles that Ben Pile claims to be responding to.” For example, quoting Roy Spencer claiming to be in the 97% after I already pointed out that Spencer is actually in the < 3%. That’s not speculation, that’s where he fell in the abstract ratings. Did Pile even read my articles? I don’t know if he only read a few sentences, or if he’s just ignoring the inconvenient bits (like 75% of what I wrote), or what, but this post is rather appalling.

I had read Nuccitellis articles, and his paper. And I explained to him why, even using his own categories, Spencer still doesn’t belong in the 3%.

This seems to be a theme. The authors of the Consensus Project and their supporters don’t seem to understand the paper itself.

Angered by Hulme, an anonymous and distinctly troll-like blogger going by the moniker ‘Wotts Up With That Blog’ has penned some kind of response, aimed mainly at Hulme…

I don’t want to say much about the actual post, but it does seem to be written be someone who thinks it’s more important to philsophize about science, than actually do science – or maybe, more correctly, someone who thinks they can judge science by philosophizing about science.

The author must have missed my point.

The consequence of excluding non-expert opinion (other than expert opinion’s cheerleaders) from the climate debate is, paradoxically, the undermining of the value of expertise. Rather than engagements on matters of substance, a hollow debate emerges about whose evidence weighs the most, whose arguments are supported by the most experts, and which experts are the most qualified. The question ‘who should be allowed to speak’ dominates the discussion at the expense of hearing what they actually have to say.

[…]

And those who shout most loudly about science turn out to be advancing an idea of science which, rather than emphasising the scientific method, puts much more store — let’s call it ‘faith’ — in scientific institutions. Hence, the emphasis on the weight, number and height of scientific evidence articles, and expertise, rather than on the process of testing competing theories.

The author then scratches his head, trying to understand Hulme, and comes up with this interesting account of the Consensus Project:

Cook et al. is {sic} not trying to claim that the science is settled because there is a consensus. It’s trying to point out that a “consensus” exists so as to address those claiming that it doesn’t.

If Anon. had read the post he would realise that the problem is not a question about the existence of the consensus, but the object of the consensus:

The consensus referred to by Davey and Nuccitelli, then, is what I call a consensus without an object: the consensus can mean whatever the likes of Davey and Nuccitelli want it to mean. Davey can wave away any criticism of government’s policy simply by invoking the magical proportion, 97%, even though those critics’ arguments would be included in that number. Consensus is invoked in the debate at the expense of nuance. A polarised debate suits political ends, not ‘evidence-based policy’.

It’s not a complicated point. If we all agree on a point, X, and then someone says ‘Y’, the consensus on ‘X’ still exists, it’s just been misrepresented. But it’s a point that Anon. seems unable to fathom. He continues…

I realise that many are using the Cook et al. paper to argue that science isn’t done by consensus and hence that the paper illustrates a fundamental problem with climate science, but I still think that such a paper has value. Eventually, the message will have to get out there and it will become clear that there is strong agreement about the science.

So, here Anon. unwittingly reveals that the consensus paper is a strategy. Still scratching his head, he asks his readers for help.

Tom Curtis (who is, as far as I can tell, a partner in the Skeptical Science blog enterprise) obliges, with archetypal green invective.

There is a large measure of idiocy in Ben Pile’s post, and in Mike Hulme’s endorsement of it.

The architects of the new consensus — Cook et al and their pals — really ought to understand the dynamics of a consensus. If you begin your defence of a consensus by calling those who might belong to it ‘idiots’, the only possible outcome is that the consensus will diminish. He moves on… Sort of. A long discussion about other people’s arguments about the Consensus Project’s methods follows – none of which relates much to my criticism. Then Cook says,

The fact is that claims of a low consensus bar are refuted by the classification system in the paper. Based on the paper, if you “explicitly minimize [or] reject AGW as less than 50%”, you reject the consensus. So, we now know, apparently that all those AGW critics believe that AGW is responsible for 50%+ of warming over at least the last 50 years (and possibly over the twentieth century). There is no other coherent way to read the paper.

This is a stunning revision of the paper. And it proves my point that the argument about the substance of climate science is obscured by second hand arguments about the consensus.

In fact, this is how the paper categorises abstracts:

(Click for larger version)

Curtis is wrong. The paper gives three categories of ‘endorsement’, and three of rejection. Of these six, only one makes a test as Curtis has described — and that is for ‘explicit rejection': “Explicitly states that humans are causing less than half of global warming”.

This leads to the possibility of paradoxes. You could argue in a paper that only 49.9999999999999999999999999999999% of global warming was caused by mankind, but as long as you said in the abstract something to the effect of Emissions of a broad range of greenhouse gases of varying lifetimes contribute to global climate change, your paper would be counted as an ‘endorsement’ (i.e. part of the consensus). But swap the two claims around — put the 49.9(etc) figure in the abstract, and the endorsement in the body of the paper — and suddenly you’re a denier.

So it would seem that Curtis doesn’t even understand this survey he is defending, and from this misunderstand he calls me — and worse, Mike Hulme — an idiot.

Curtis’s rant gets worse…

I know for a fact that many of those critics endorse very low climate sensitivities that imply that anthropogenic factors cannot be the cause of most of global warming, even since 1980. They routinely say as much, indicating that while anthropogenic factors may have contributed some part of the warming, the warming is overwhelmingly natural in origin. Therefore, I can only assume that their claim to belong to the “consensus position” of Cook et al it tactical. At best it is dreadfully misinformed.

Ben Pile should have known this. He certainly should have suspected it, given the known position of his informants. He absolutely should not have only taken the opinions of known critics of AGW and Cook in forming his view of how the consensus was defined in Cook et al. Doing so shows him either to be entirely partisan in his outlook, or idiotic.

I certainly do know for a fact that some people’s estimates of climate sensitivity are so low as to at least imply, contrary to the IPCC statement, natural variability might account for more than 50% of the warming in the second half of the C20th. My argument, however, was that the Consensus Project is too clumsy to capture such a position.

For instance, I point out in my reply to Martin Lack that Roy Spencer’s paper has been misclassified. The abstract read as follows:

“We explore the daily evolution of tropical intraseasonal oscillations in satellite-observed tropospheric temperature, precipitation, radiative fluxes, and cloud properties. The warm/rainy phase of a composited average of fifteen oscillations is accompanied by a net reduction in radiative input into the ocean-atmosphere system, with longwave heating anomalies transitioning to longwave cooling during the rainy phase. The increase in longwave cooling is traced to decreasing coverage by ice clouds, potentially supporting Lindzen’s “infrared iris” hypothesis of climate stabilization. These observations should be considered in the testing of cloud parameterizations in climate models, which remain sources of substantial uncertainty in global warming prediction.”

Notice that the abstract makes absolutely no statements about the relative contributions to C20th warming of natural variation and anthropogenic CO2. Yet the paper was categorised as being an ‘implicit rejection’, the definition of which is:

(5) Implicit rejection – Implies humans have had a minimal impact on global warming without saying so explicitly E.g., proposing a natural mechanism is the main cause of global warming. Example: “‘. . . anywhere from a major portion to all of the warming of the 20th century could plausibly result from natural causes according to these results.”

Of course we know that Spencer is a critic of the IPCC. But one must abandon such prior knowledge if one is to execute such a test of abstracts as the Consensus Project’s intended.

The point here is not just about this prior knowledge influencing a subjective reading and classification of the paper — i.e. the method and its execution. The point is that there is something wrong with the categories themselves — the research design. These categories aren’t useful to the debate. Even if we were to find some better categories, they would still obscure the substance of the debate.

Curtis concludes much as he started, just in case anyone had forgotten he was calling Mike Hulme an idiot for agreeing with me.

And in endorsing Ben Pile’s comment, Mike Hulme (who is certainly not partisan) shows his intervention to be idiotic and ill informed. He has merely accepted the propaganda of climate science deniers and treated it as straightforward fact. He has done so without any attempt to check with the original authors as to whether or not the opinion was fair. Frankly, from a scientist, such ill informed and inflammatory comments are a disgrace.

It’s all about endorsing with these guys, isn’t it… Endorsement and rejection. Hulme should have rejected Pile and endorsed Cook et al, because Pile rejects the consensus, whereas Cook et al endorse it, as do most climate scientists. They want agreements and disagreements to be black and white, yes and no, true and false, science and denier.

Curtis continues his attack on Hulme further on in the comments…

Unfortunately his insistence that the policy debate is not determined by the science (which is true) clouds him to the fact that you can’t have the real policy debate while one side of politics is determinedly ignoring the science.

Again, we see here the circular argument, which is itself preoccupied with cartoonish antagonisms: ‘sides’. One side of politics is ignoring the science. The evidence for half of this statement is, of course, the study.

But as I explain in the post, in the case of Davey, the science is being ignored by a politician, it having been displaced from the debate by the 97% figure. Moreover, as we have seen in Davey, his predecessors, and his superiors, you can say anything you like about climate change, as long as it doesn’t contradict this view of sides. You could say, for instance, that there will be 10 metres of sea level rise by 2100 and that therefore climate policies are necessary. This claim would exist far away from ‘The Science’. But it would seem to be correct according to the tests applied to it by the Consensus Project. This is disappointing, because Curtis is nearly on to something…

Further, he appears to have picked up that strange censorial attitude noteworthy also in von Storch which presumes that because they do not believe that AGW will lead to catastrophe (which is a respectable position inside the consensus), that therefore scientists who do believe that it will (also a respectable position inside the consensus) must not state that belief in public.

Surely this is a frank admission that there is no consensus on catastrophic climate change? If so, then Curtis is now in a real bind, because this deprives the ‘warmist’ crowd of their moral imperatives. Moreover, most complaints from sceptics are that the catastrophism we are all too familiar with is undue — not that there is no such thing as climate change. And what Curtis seems entirely oblivious to is the extent to which catastrophic stories have political utility. Curtis then descends to simple transference:

Perhaps it is a weird reflection of the pernicious practice of reporting (or claiming) that “science says” this or that, as if science was an independent person. Science says nothing, but scientists say much, and much that disagrees with each other. It appears that Hulme and von Storch want to maintain that monolithic voice, while insisting it be as cautious in its claims as they are.

Curtis should have read my post more carefully:

Some might still sense no problem with such an expertisation of politics, and may even prefer it to what appears to be the arbitrary landscape of politics and ideology. But what the squabble over the Sunday Politics interview reveals is that political debates descend to science; they are often not improved by science and evidence as much as they degraded by undue expectations of them. Being an advocate of science seems to mean nothing more than shouting as loudly as possible ‘what science says…’, second hand.

And those who shout most loudly about science turn out to be advancing an idea of science which, rather than emphasising the scientific method, puts much more store — let’s call it ‘faith’ — in scientific institutions. Hence, the emphasis on the weight, number and height of scientific evidence articles, and expertise, rather than on the process of testing competing theories.

Finally, in a third attack on Hulme, Curtis makes some extraordinary claims:

As to what is said, for somebody who prattles on about the importance of different ways of knowing, and the need to include humanities within the ambit of the IPCC, Mike Hulme is pretty clueless. Had he a slight clue he would know about such important matters in the humanities as conversational implicature, and context.

The first is a simple point dressed up in so much verbiage:

So the first thing that is evident is that Hulme, in his comparison of supposedly distinct statements, is simply ignoring conversational implicature. In consequence he is treating two phrases which convey the same information to anyone who has not set out ab initio to score rhetorical points as being entirely distinct.

In essence, Curtis is excusing the Consensus Project’s word play by saying that Hulme is playing with words. But, as has been shown, the wording of the specification of categories in the paper was problematic. It was ambiguous, and it was a transparent attempt to project its authors prejudices into the debate. They are meaningless categories, and the defence that an attempt to point out that they are meaningless categories is semantic play is dishonest, since it ultimately depends on nothing more than Curtis’s claim that the authors are honest. Sadly for Curtis, we are allowed to believe that they are not honest, and to demand a higher level of argument.

But this is even more incredible, given Curtis’s own misconception of the study’s categories: (emphasis added)

Second, and this is an inexcusable lapse as interpretation in context is a cardinal rule in all academic disciplines, he ignores context. In this case the essential context is the actual definitions of the ratings categories, and the need to interpret them (if at all possible) as mutually consistent and non-overlapping. Given those constraints, any abstract indicating that that “Humans cause global warming”, and therefore “Humans cause global warming” is seen to be short hand for “Humans have caused most of recent global warming.”

As was shown above, by reference to the paper itself Curtis is wrong to say that the categories divide the abstracts according to the 50% measure. Moreover, as was shown above, the categories are not mutually consistent, and do overlap. There are many arguments that could belong to one or more of the categories, on both putative sides of the division. For example, one could very easily construct an argument that met the definition of an “Explicit endorsement without quantification” (category 2) and an “Explicit rejection with quantification” (category 7). The test of this would be a contradiction in the following statement:

‘Emissions of a broad range of greenhouse gases of varying lifetimes contribute to global climate change’ BUT ‘The human contribution to the CO2 content in the atmosphere and the increase in temperature is negligible in comparison with other sources of carbon dioxide emission’

Does this hypothetical statement belong in category 2 or 7? It meets the criteria of both, but doesn’t contradict itself. It is only seen as a contraction when an attempt is made to force it into the papers’ schema: bogus categories. The authors impose their own prejudices and misconceptions of the debate on to the debate. QED.

Worse, even than that projection is this statement…

In fact, there exists a concerted disinformation campaign one of whose key strategies is to underplay the level of scientific agreement about global warming. Given that, it is perfectly appropriate for somebody to what to actually assess the level of that agreement; and perfectly reasonable to want to counter the false arguments that the level of scientific agreement is small. And whether or not the level of agreement in the literature to the claim that humans have caused greater than 50% of recent warming is near 97% or closer to 50% is very relevant to that issue (and the correctness of my ascriptions of which side is indulging in disinformation.)

Curtis cannot demonstrate a “concerted disinformation campaign” exists, nor that it intends “to underplay the level of scientific agreement about global warming”.

But what we can see now is that there vividly exists a campaign — and it looks like a “concerted disinformation campaign” to me — to OVERSTATE the “level of scientific agreement about global warming”. Some climate scientists seem to agree. Curtis’s response is to call them idiots.

Then there is the special pleading. “it is perfectly appropriate for somebody to what to actually assess the level of that agreement”, says Curtis. But wait, hasn’t he been calling anyone who has tried to establish what the level of agreement is, and more importantly what the agreement consists of, an idiot? Curtis doesn’t want anyone to know what the substance of the agreement is. He just wants them to know that the agreement is substantial. That way, as I pointed out in the post, it can mean whatever he wants it to mean.

Finally, then, who is Tom Curtis?

According to the about page on his own blog,

I have noticed at least one person refer to me as a scientist, which I am not. […] But if not a scientist, what am I? By training, I am a philosopher, with a particular interest in ethics, logic and epistemology (in that order).

So, not a climate scientist. And a bit of a failure at logic and epistemology, too.

If this survey had not influenced the arguments of Obama and Davey, and thus perhaps influenced UK policy, I might actually feel sorry for the paper’s authors and their fans. Instead, seeing for myself just how shallow their thinking is, and how transparent their politicking is, I am more terrified that it is so easy for such a collection of mediocre minds to achieve such prominence, merely by flattering politicians with such rank pseudo science.


UPDATE.

Tom Curtis has a response to the above over at the site in question. His defence is rather interesting…

tlitb1, I have read that appalling piece of crap. It may convince those who want to be convinced, but not any discerning critic.

At one point Pile argues against my contention that his interpretation of “endorses global warming” is incorrect because it makes the classification system unnecessarily inconsistent by simply asserting the classification system is inconsistent. Apparently he has never heard of the principle of charity in criticisms, ie, that in interpreting the works of others you construe them as consistent if it is possible to do so. In this case it is certainly possible to do so so choosing the inconsistent interpretation so that you can criticize the paper for inconsistency merely indicates that you are determined to criticize the paper regardless of its actual merits.

I’m glad to discover that Tom Curtis is in favour of a charitable reading of other people’s arguments. But if being ‘charitable’ means calling Hulme (and me) ‘idiots’, I would hate to see what being uncharitable looks like.

Following Ed Davey’s somewhat silly comments about the climate debate, I recently submitted an FOI request for more information.

From: Ben Pile
Sent: 22 June 2013
To: deccfoi
Subject: Foi Request – Davey speech 18 June.

Dear Sir,

On 18 June, Ed Davey made a speech at at Residence Palace, Brussels, which is published on the DECC website at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/edward-davey-speech-ambitious-and-flexible-europes-2030-framework-for-emissions-reduction

Davey: “The science is solid and accepted by pretty much every government on earth. Of course there will always be those with a vested interest in the status quo. Who seek to create doubt where
there is certainty. And you will always get crackpots and conspiracy theorists who will deny they have a nose on their face if it suits them. But the truth is this: while forecasts of the future rate at which the world will warm differ, and while many accept we will see periods when warming temporarily plateaus, all the scientific evidence is in one direction.”

Davey’s comments — now published by DECC — seem to refer to arguments made by individuals or organisations in the wider debate about climate and energy policy. However, these parties were not named. Moreover, nor were any specific claims made by these parties addressed by Davey given any substance.

I am sure that the comments made by Davey in his speech reflect the best scientific advice and research, and an impartial view of the arguments for and against the policies he is advancing.

However, in the interests of clarity and an informed debate, I believe the Secretary of State should be more candid about who he is addressing his arguments to, and what the substance of their arguments is. I would like the following questions to be treated as a FOI request.

  1. Who are the parties with ‘vested interests’ referred to by Davey?
  2. By what means was Davey made aware of these ‘vested interests’?
  3. Who are the ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ referred to by Davey?
  4. By what means was Davey made aware of these ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’?
  5. What is the science, referred to by Davey, which is contradicted by the ‘vested interests’ and ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’?
  6. How do the arguments advanced by ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ and ‘vested interests’ contradict the science?
  7. What is Davey’s (or the department’s) evidence that ‘vested interests’ and ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ have had an impact on the wider debate?
  8. Has the department had an internal discussion, or commissioned any research — internally or externally — that identifies these ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ and ‘vested interests’, and evaluates their arguments? If such discussions or research exist, may I see them?

Many thanks,

Ben Pile.

Here is the reply…

Your request has been considered under the terms of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000. However, some of the information which you have requested constitutes environmental information for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs). As such, to the extent that the information requested is environmental your request has also been considered under the EIRs.

Your request is in relation to the following two sentences of a speech made by Secretary of State Edward Davey on 18th June 2013:

Of course there will always be those with a vested interest in the status quo.

And:

And you will always get crackpots and conspiracy theorists who will deny they have a nose on their face if it suits them.

In answer to your questions 1-5, we do not hold recorded information within scope of these questions. As is made clear in the statement Edward Davey’s intent was not to point to any particular group or party, but to the practice of public relations and lobbying in all areas of public governance, some arguing for change, some arguing for no change, and how it can sometimes be reflected unchallenged in some sections of the media. His comments were informed by his personal experience, including as a member of Parliament.

The scientific evidence that Edward Davey referred to in his speech comes from the published peer-reviewed work of many research groups in the UK and around the world and from the published assessments undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other organisations, including the Royal Society, the US National Academies of Science and the Committee on Climate Change.

In answer to your questions 6 and 7, Edward Davey did not make the specific claims to which you refer in his speech, and we do not hold recorded information within scope of these questions.

DECC has not commissioned any research internal or external for the purpose you suggest. However the Department holds some information in scope of your question 8. It regularly monitors arguments and debates on climate change and the general results are often discussed internally via email or meetings. The Department also regularly publishes scientific advice and documents and commentary on its policies and is transparent in the advice it receives. The scientific advice and documents are freely available from the DECC website at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-of-energy-climate-change

After careful examination of question 8 we have determined that Regulation 12(4)(b) applies to that part of the question that concerns DECC’s internal emails, briefing papers or meeting notes where climate change issues are discussed. Regulation 12(4)(b) provides that a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that the request for information is manifestly unreasonable. In applying the exception, we have considered the public interest test in respect of your request and applied a presumption in favour of disclosure (as required by Regulation 12(2) of the EIRs). We acknowledge that greater transparency makes the Government more accountable to the electorate, increases trust and also enables the public contribution to policy making to become more effective. Gathering the information you requested would require a search of the Department’s electronic and paper records, personal email accounts and devices of staff concerned. Determining, locating, retrieving and extracting the requested information would take longer than 24 working hours. This would involve a significant cost to the Department and diversion of resources from the teams concerned and the Department’s other work. Given that a lot of the information the Department holds is already in the public domain we consider that the public interest there may be in disclosing documents through this request, and any associated benefits in increasing transparency, are outweighed by the cost of meeting the request.

It would be interesting to know what happens at DECC. For example, we know that amongst DECC’s advisers is this chap

I am Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group within the School. I work on risk, risk perception, and risk communication and as such my research is interdisciplinary at the interface of social psychology, environmental sciences, and science and technology studies. I am currently researching public responses to energy technologies (e.g. nuclear power, renewable energy), climate change risks, and climate geoengineering. I have in the past led numerous policy oriented projects on issues of public responses to environmental risk issues and on ‘science in society’ for UK Government Departments, the Research Councils, the Royal Society, and Charities. I am currently a member of the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Science Advisory Group (SAG), and theme leader for the Climate Change Consortium for Wales.

DECC’s SAG consists of these people

Professor John Shepherd FRS (Chair) – School of Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton
Chris Mottershead – King’s College London
Professor Nick Jenkins – Cardiff University
Professor Tadj Oreszczyn – Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, UCL
Professor Stuart Haszeldine – University of Edinburgh
Professor Peter Cox – College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter
Paul Watkiss – Paul Watkiss Associates (independent research consultancy specialising in climate change, environmental and economic policy advice)
Dame Sue – Imperial College London
Professor Nick Pidgeon – Cardiff University
Professor Jon Gibbins – Institute of Materials and Processes, University of Edinburgh

The stuff they get up to can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/policy-advisory-groups/science-advisory-group

DECC currently spends around £25 million annually on scientific evidence-gathering. This work supports the department’s policies, helps meet UK, EU and UNFCCC reporting obligations, and feeds into the committee on Climate Change and DECC’s work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). DECC also works in partnership with the research councils and academic community where their work has policy-relevant outputs.

What’s hard to understand is how a minister with such a brief, and such budgets for expertise, could have produced such a poor argument that his own department couldn’t get behind.

I have a post up at the Nottingham University/Leverhulme ‘Making Science Public’ blog, run by Warren Pearce.

What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms?

Andrew Neil’s interview with Ed Davey on the Sunday Politics show last week caused an eruption of comment. For sceptics, it was a refreshing change of scenery: a journalist at the BBC, a stronghold of environmental orthodoxy, challenging the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, an office which is rarely held to account. But perhaps because of this, it upset many of a greener hue.

Read more at http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/07/23/whats-behind-the-battle-of-received-wisdoms/

Ed Davey’s comments have been causing a stir this week. First, there is this exchange between Andrew Neil and the Energy Secretary on the Sunday Politics show…

It’s good to see Davey finally getting a grilling about the basis for the government’s policies. And it’s even more refreshing to see it on the BBC. However, the over-emphasis on science doesn’t help the debate. As others have pointed out. Davey just returns to the same old argument, about majorities of scientists — the bogus polarisation of binary, opposing categories of ‘scientists’ vs ‘deniers’. Although Davey claims that ‘climate science is incredibly complicated – it’s new, innovative science’, he reduces it to a simple story of goodies and baddies.

The debate about the ‘science’ has been going on for years. Even if the alarmist interpretation of climate science is weakening, it won’t end environmental alarmism and the shoddy thinking that underpins government policy. There are many problems with the government’s policies and thinking, just one of which I pointed out in the previous post.

This is most concisely demonstrated by a tweet from Richard Tol, in response to the interview, in which the subject of rising energy bills was too briefly mentioned.

I particularly like the bit where @EdwardDaveyMP claims that they’re putting up energy prices to combat energy poverty. @afneil

Davey is facing a real challenge, and the fact of his impatient comments about his critics serve only to demonstrate that he is steepening his rhetoric because he is losing the argument. It turns out that the ‘crackpots and conspiracy theorists’ aren’t so easy to dismiss as such. Hence, his open letter to the Taxpayers Alliance (TPA).

(And it cannot help poor old Davey that his predecessor at DECC, the disgraced Chris Huhne, who, barely out of prison is intent on developing tensions between the Treasury and DECC, and between the Tories and the ailing junior partners in the coalition).

Davey was taking issue with the TPA, who are running a campaign called Stop the Energy Swindle. Said Davey, about the TPA’s argument:

… it is disingenuous to seek to pin the blame on government policies using inflated assessments of their impacts while ignoring the main driver for price increases – rising global fossil fuel prices. It’s the global gas price, not green subsidies, that has primarily been pushing up energy bills. 60% of the increase in household energy bills between 2010 and 2012 was caused by this.

It is incredible that Davey should argue that the government is not to blame for rising energy bills, but that rising fossil fuel prices are. If prices can be brought down or stabilised, as Davey argues, by building wind farms and other renewables, why can’t they be brought down by building more capacity in conventional energy production? After all, the wind above our heads is as ‘free’ as the coal, oil, gas and uranium beneath our feet. The cost comes from turning something useless into something useful, and getting it from where it is to where it is needed. Emphasising restraint, and disincentivising conventional and cheaper production of energy (or conversely, incentivising renewable energy) will have the inevitable consequence of limiting the capacity of conventional energy production, pushing prices up. The scarcity of conventional fuels is a product of policy, not a fact about the world. Davey’s and DECC’s do not count the opportunity cost created by their policies.

The TPA’s reply is here.

The Liberum Capital estimate of the likely increase in total power costs is realistic. Their estimate is based on reasonable assumptions about the amount of investment needed; the higher profits in the energy sector needed to pay for that investment; and the higher prices needed to pay for those profits. Given the challenges facing the nuclear programme and the high costs of offshore wind, their estimate seems conservative.

Liberum’s analysis is pretty solid. In summary, it argues that the EMR bill will transfer risk from investors in renewable energy to the consumer. Investors have not been persuaded by the (current and previous) government’s claims that they will continue to support them, nor by the performance of renewable energy technology or policies where they have been tried (and they have failed) elsewhere. Although many wind farms and other green energy projects have been developed in the UK, the UK’s progress towards meeting its emissions reduction and renewable energy targets are short of expectations. Hence, the constant refrain of ‘investor certainty’ in the Houses of Parliament.

But you don’t even need to take Liberum’s word for it. The Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change’s own dyscalculia should be enough to persuade you…

During his grilling by Andrew Neil, Davey made the following comment:

Ed Davey: If our policies were as expensive as you suggested, we would obviously want to look at them, but – the figure you gave at the top of the programme. You said that our policies are putting £112 on people’s bills. well, let’s look at that.

Andrew Neil: That’s your figure.

Ed Davey: I’m about to – I’ll give you the breakdown of that. The vast majority of that £112 is tackling fuel poverty, making people’s homes warmer. That’s a no-regrets, because it reduces energy bills long-term. That’s what I mean. A lot of the policies we’re doing you should do anyway. Only a small part of that £112 that you mentioned, which you tried to say was the cost of climate change – completely falsely, I have to say – only a small amount is in subsidising renewable and low-carbon energies. That’s why we’re taking a very rational, sensible, moderate approach to this.

Davey is trying to claim that his policies will reduce bills, given the fact of rising prices on energy markets. Even leaving aside the problems of this assumption, we can see that this is nonsense. Not even Davey is talking about an absolute reduction in bills, but a reduction only relative to their hypothetical scenario of rising energy prices.

Davey is right to say that the contribution of ‘subsidising renewable and low-carbon energies’ to prices rises is small. It is, in absolute terms. But fundamental to his broader argument is the claim that energy bills will be reduced by reducign demand through energy efficiency measures. Hence ‘The vast majority of that £112 is tackling fuel poverty, making people’s homes warmer.’

Some people, living in some kinds of accommodation will be entitled to ‘free’ energy efficiency measures. But this means someone else has to pay for them. Another failed policy — the Green Deal — that only launched this year is the government’s attempt to get even more people to reduce their energy needs.

Bus as has been argued here before, ‘efficiency’ is a fickle concept. Efficiency depends on what we count as good and bad. Clearly, on the green measure, ‘efficiency’ is measured only in terms of energy. But what if it was, in the final analysis, better to have cheap energy and energy inefficient homes, than to have expensive energy and efficient homes? This is the calculation I made last year in response to demands from Quango, Consumer Focus, that a whopping £55 billion be spent on improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s poorest 9 million homes. It turns out it would be much cheaper just to build some power stations and give those people electricity for ‘free’.

The Green Deal allows homeowners to take out a loan, attached to the property, to fit energy saving measures such as insulation and heating. But, noting the caveat about how ‘efficiency’ is measured above, the loan is conditional:

The key principle, or golden rule, for accessing Green Deal finance is that the charge attached to the bill should not exceed the expected savings, and the length of the payment period should not exceed the expected lifetime of the measures. This is not a government guarantee, but a guideline for customers that, typically, they should be able to expect to gain more efficient, less wasteful properties with no additional net cost from the Green Deal.

The cost of Green Deal loans is 7%. So if you borrowed £8,000 over a period of 25 years, you’d be paying back your original £8,000 plus £8,635 interest — a total of £16,635, or £56 a month for 300 months.

That means you’d have to use £56-worth less electricity and gas every month to make the loan worthwhile — or £672 a year. This is roughly equivalent to a half an average domestic energy bill for a year.

Let’s assume that it is possible to find a 50% reduction in a home, for a £8,000 investment in efficiency measures — though you wouldn’t have much change after some insulation and a new boiler. Notice that — HURRAH! — your energy bill has gone down, but the amount you pay every month has not. The home owner is now paying the gas and electricity companies, and the loan company.

And then, that’s before we’ve taken into account any future price rises. You may have cut your energy use by half, but you still have to pay for increases in energy prices. If the TPA’s claim that energy bills will increase to £2000/year by 2020 is correct, your bill will still rise by a further £400 or so.

Some perspective on historic prices may be useful here.

Up until 2005, the average bill for electricity and gas for a domestic consumer, paying by direct debit was £600. It’s now more than twice that. And between now and 2020, it will be three times that. And into the 2020s, it may even be four times the amount paid in 2005. The energy minister may want to deny responsibility for it, but now energy companies are beginning to refuse the blame put on them by Davey and his colleagues. According to the Telegraph today,

A household’s energy bill will rise from £1,247 today to £1,487 by 2020 in real terms – not taking into account inflationary increases – if usage remains static, npower warns in a report. Costs caused by government policies such as subsidies for new wind farms and energy efficiency schemes will be the main driver, adding £144, it claims.

Admittedly, NPower’s claim is substantially lower than the TPA’s. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that fewer people than ever think that the government’s policies are likely to reduce bills.

And it’s not as if Npower are against the government’s policies. NPower announced:

“Government and energy suppliers need to be much clearer about the facts behind rising energy costs, so we can present one clear message to consumers: energy costs will rise, and the only way to control of this is taking action to reduce consumption.”

So, NPower really only have themselves to blame for the government’s attempts to explain energy companies as the reason for rising energy prices.

“Government policy is rightly delivering the transformation we need to address the UK’s poor housing stock and encourage investment required in new infrastructure – but achieving these aspirations comes at a cost, and this is what needs to be clearly communicated to consumers. The fact is that if people don’t take action to reduce energy consumption, their bills are going to rise. If we can’t be upfront about that, we won’t be able to convince people to make big changes to be more energy efficient.”

Who are NPower to say that the government’s policies are ‘rightly delivering the transformation we need’? The idea that the energy company is concerned about rising energy prices is far-fetched indeed. It is manifestly the case that a return to 2005 prices would do more to improve housing stock than would be done by transforming that stock itself. There should be democratic debate about the government’s priorities

Instead, there are edicts from the annointed. The possibility of increasing productive capacity, or to prioritise lower energy prices is not given consideration by NPower, who take as ‘rightly’ the government’s policies. And it’s not given consideration by the Government, whose Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change instead invents counter-factual arguments about rising energy prices that have no basis in fact, and who resists criticism by recourse to words like ‘crackpots’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’. And when that fails, he goes on TV to reveal he really doesn’t have a grasp of the debate.

The people left out of this of course, is the public. And their attitudes towards energy companies, the government and policies has been measured by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in a new report out today. According to UKERC, the research,

… funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and carried out by a team from the Universities of Cardiff and Nottingham, reveal that people in Britain are fully supportive of the idea of energy system change.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, who led the research team, said: “Our participants saw the bigger picture of energy system transformation, and they were overwhelmingly committed to moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable forms of energy production, and to lowering energy demand”.

The research highlights key factors that influence public assessment of proposed changes. From examining these factors, the research shows that the public favours changes that are: energy efficient rather than wasteful; protect the environment and nature; are reliable, accessible and safe; allow consumers a certain amount of autonomy and power; are socially just and fair; improve on what has gone before; score well in terms of quality and performance; and, fit with a long-term, sustainable trajectory, rather than being just a short-term fix.

The research is so much waffle about opinions on Motherhood and Apple Pie. But there you have it… According to independent academic researchers, the public apparently supports the UK’s climate and energy policies…

But wait… Who are the authors? Well, according to Professor Nick Pidgeon himself:

I am Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group within the School. I work on risk, risk perception, and risk communication and as such my research is interdisciplinary at the interface of social psychology, environmental sciences, and science and technology studies. I am currently researching public responses to energy technologies (e.g. nuclear power, renewable energy), climate change risks, and climate geoengineering. I have in the past led numerous policy oriented projects on issues of public responses to environmental risk issues and on ‘science in society’ for UK Government Departments, the Research Councils, the Royal Society, and Charities. I am currently a member of the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Science Advisory Group (SAG), and theme leader for the Climate Change Consortium for Wales.

Why didn’t UKERC just ask Ed Davey to do the research? This is transparently polic-based evidence-making.

The fact that Pidgeon’s academic and activists lives converge rather more than they probably ought to is well known. Moreover, the academy has ever more sought the academy’s authority.

For instance, what Pidgeon doesn’t admit on his staff profile page, nor in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry on “Climate: public understanding and its policy implications” is that he is also on the Public Interest Research Centre’s Climate Change Communication Advisory Group (CCCAG). The PIRC claim to be a ‘an independent charity studying & communicating vital global issues’, but are, on any definition, an activist organisation.

CCCAG’s aim is to use current academic research and practitioner-based expertise to best inform government and non-governmental climate change communications and engagement.

in 2010, CCCAG’s advice to the UK government included the following:

Private-sphere behavioural change is not enough, and may even at times become a diversion from the more important process of bringing political pressure to bear on policy-makers. The importance of public demonstrations of frustration at both the lack of political progress on climate change and the barriers presented by vested interests is widely recognised – including by government itself. Climate change communications, including government communication campaigns, should work to normalise public displays of frustration with the slow pace of political change. Ockwell et al (2009) argued that communications can play a role in fostering demand for – as well as acceptance of – policy change. Climate change communication could (and should) be used to encourage people to demonstrate (for example through public demonstrations) about how they would like structural barriers to behavioural/societal change to be removed.

In other words, the CCCAG’s advice to government was to actively encourage the public to actively encourage the government to encourage the public… etc.

The infinite recursion of environmentalism’s logic reflects the extent to which environmentalists have their heads stuck up their backsides. Here is Pidgeon, trying to explain how climate alarmism can be made to work:

In the video, Pidgeon evinces a set of theories about the public that have become known as ‘nudge’ — a practice that seeks to elicit the public’s obedience with policies. This varies from ideas about how to construct social norms, through to strategies to ‘communicate’ ‘information’ to people who might otherwise ignore it. There are two problems with this. First, it demonstrates a very cynical view of the public — that they can be ‘engaged’ given only the correct strategy. Second, it seems to posit an idea of politics in which the public must respond to the political establishment’s desires — a total inversion of normal politics.

As I’ve pointed out to Adam Corner, Pidgeon’s colleague at the Understanding Risk Research Group in Cardiff, it seems odd indeed that the Understanding Risk Research Group do not understand the predominance of risk in contemporary politics as a political, or problematic phenomenon. As the video shows, Pidgeon’s only criticism of ‘climate porn’ is that it might not be an effective strategy in ‘communicating’ or ‘engagement’. Thus, Pidegon and Corner are oblivious to their own politics. They believe that the compact between the state and the academy in the era of fear and risk-based politics is a Good Thing. They don’t want there to be a debate about policies, and the science and values that underpin them.

So there we have it — the muddled minister, being advised on energy policy by activists academics, and energy companies who are more than happy to get behind any policies that promise ‘investor certainty’.

David Rose has a short article on my report for Roger Helmer MEP on the size of the UK’s green economy.

But documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the true value of the green economy is actually between only £16.8 billion and £27.9 billion, depending on exactly how the term ‘green economy’ is defined. In other words, the official figures exaggerate the scale of the sector by up to 700 per cent.

Rose’s article is published just under James Delingpole’ article — which is also worth a read.

I’ve always thought that the government’s (current and previous) claims about the green economy were highly dubious. But they (or their staff at DECC/BIS, etc), have been very unhelpful. Last October, I asked them again for data relating to their estimates of the ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS) market, after it had been claimed, yet again, that it was now worth £122 bn year. They refused, as they have done before, on the basis that the research is undertaken by a private company — Innovas, in the earlier reports, and K-Matrix more recently.

This is a defacto paywall protecting the government and its policies against anyone who wants to understand the basis of their decisions, but who is not sympathetic to them. It’s also a way of hiding dodgy dossiers and sexed up statistics. Indeed, BIS claimed in their responses to me that they had bought ‘off the self’ research from the companies.

But further inspection of earlier LECGS reports revealed that BERR/BIS had commissioned Innovas/K-Matrix, and had in fact worked with the company to develop the specification of the sector. So in fact, BIS had been lying. On this basis, I appealed against the two refused FOI requests, and an internal review found in my favour.

A scan through the LCEGS taxonomy — the list of markets included in the LCEGS sector — reveals that the government has been playing fast-and-loose with categories. It includes the production and distribution of a number of fossil fuels. It includes thing as daft as rubber-band powered cars. It counts activities that are actively polluting as ‘environmental services’.

The taxonomy given to me by BIS is here [MS Excel format] .

A draft copy of my report is here [PDF].

There are a few typos in the draft, but I’m not near a computer to fix them now. On page 15, for example, I write,

If the sales of methane, wood, wood gas, vegetable oil, biomass and peanut oil are as substantial as the LCEGS report claims, this would be remarkable. In energy terms, it is equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s energy consumption. Thus further investigation is required.

It should say

If the sales of methane, wood, wood gas, vegetable oil, biomass and peanut oil are as substantial as the LCEGS report claims, this would be remarkable. In market terms, it is equivalent to nearly half of the UK’s spend on electricity. Thus further investigation is required.

The government’s official estimate of £120 billion is, as the report explains, completely implausible. I find a figure of around £27 billion much more likely, but it may be as low as £17bn, after we exclude the emissions-trading sector, and take out the money for green taxes and subsidies to green projects.

Of the remaining market, one question I don’t ask is how much good it does, even on its own terms. If you were going to spend £16 bn a year on making a greener economy, why not just spend it on nuclear power?


UPDATE: my FOI Internal Review request. (More to follow)

Security & Information Rights (SIR) Department for Business,Innovation& Skills

Attached documents

APPENDIX A – Ben Pile – BIS communications Correspondence in relation to Innovas/Kmatrix LCEGS reports
APPENDIX B – passages from BIS/BERR and Innovas/Kmatrix LCEGS reports
APPENDIX C – BIS Response 1
APPENDIX D – BIS response 2

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to request an internal review of the decision not to release data that forms the basis of the ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’ (LCEGS) reports, published by BIS (and formerly by BERR), and produced by Innovas/K-Matrix.

The LCEGS reports estimate the size of the LCEGS sector and are produced annually. To my understanding, this involved the creation of a database consisting of two main parts: i) a hierarchy of market sectors at five different levels of detail (i.e. column headings) ; and ii) data relating to market size, and employment etc, for each sector (i.e. data).

As the correspondence I have attached explains, my concern is that the data in question has been used to inform policymaking and the promotion of certain policy options in the public debate, but that the public have been denied the benefit of knowing what the LCEGS sector consists of. The published LCEGS reports contain only the top two levels of the database in categories so broad they may well encompass almost the entire productive economy rather than, as is implied, simply the ‘green economy’. The use of these reports to inform policy decisions or to make arguments in favour of certain policy options therefore creates opacity where there should be transparency.

This is a criticism I have raised with the department, and with the author of the first LCEGS report, John Sharp, shortly after it was published in 2009. However, the department continue to publish these reports in the same way.

In November last year I made a request for information about the database itself, and about the circumstances of the database’s creation. In particular, I wanted to see the column headings for each level of detail 1 through 4, though I would like now to see the same for levels 1 through 5. I also made a request for the estimates of each market sector.

My requests for the information under the FOI act were refused. However, there is a lack of consistency in the arguments offered by BIS, which furthermore do not tally with existing information, published by BIS itself. There are also some questions about the relationship between the department and Innovas/K-Matrix which are not properly answered. In spite of my requests, is still not clear whether Innovas/K-Matrix were either commissioned to produce research or simply sold an existing product to the department, off-the-shelf.

In email Appendix A.1, on 14 November (prior to the FOI request), Matthew Barker informed me that “The Low Carbon Environmental Goods & Services (LCEGS) report was commissioned by BIS”, but that the “agreement with k-matrix does not extend to releasing the unpublished data sets”.

In view of this, I asked (email Appendix A.2) for clarity on the agreement between BIS/BERR and Innovas/K-Matrix. Specifically, I asked what in the agreement prevented the release of the data. I was also puzzled about why the department would enter into such an agreement.

I received a reply on 11 December (Appendix C), which reiterated Matthew Brown’s earlier comment, and that the data “is exempt from disclosure under section 43 (2) commercial interests and should be withheld” (Appendix C, section 3) , on the basis that it “would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person” (Appendix C, section 4).

The response also pointed out that the data I had requested “is not ‘publicly funded research'” (Appendix C, section 5) and that “the company created the dataset to fill an information gap in the market”, that BIS had paid “a commercial rate to use the data” as do “multiple users from [other] sectors” .

The response went on to outline a “public interest test” (Appendix C, sections 6 through 11), the logic or meaning of which is opaque, at best only re-iterating the protection of third party commercial interests.

Seeking clarity on this new decision, I submitted a further request for information (email Appendix A.9). In particular, I explained my view that the public interest test seemed arbitrary, and that a stronger argument in favour of transparency could be made (email Appendix A.2.2). I also asked how the department knew that Innovas/K-Matrix did not want the data I had requested to be made available, amongst other questions.

I received a reply on 1 Feb (Appendix D). According to this reply, the department had contacted K-Matrix in relation to my request (Appendix D, Section 3), but that this was a courtesy and that the decision ultimately lay with the department. K-Matrix were themselves unwilling to allow me to see the information, as was revealed by the email correspondence between them and the department (Appendix E).

The response also re-iterated the department’s view that “the public interest in favour of withholding this information outweighed the public interest in its disclosure”, (Appendix D, section 3), but without explaining the process by which the public interest was weighed against any competing interest.

However, literature published by Innovas and the department jointly challenges the advice given by the department following my enquiries.

For instance, in the first edition of the report, authored by John Sharp of Innovas, the introduction states that “The authors worked solely on BERR’s instructions and for BERR purposes” (Appendix B, 1.i)”. (My emphasis). The same report goes on to explain that BERR were involved in designing the specification of the database: “This hierarchy of sector‐specific markets and activities is built up from the product market level, and then aggregated into higher level activities agreed in consultation with BERR.” (Appendix B, 1.ii). This database had been intended “To provide BERR with the detail it requires for policy and strategy development” (Appendix B, 1.iii).

Furthermore, the BIS website advises that “BIS (then BERR) commissioned Innovas/K-matrix to undertake a market assessment of the size of the UK low carbon and environmental goods and services (LCEGS) sector in 2008″. (Appendix B, 2.i).

By definition, the advice that BIS/BERR commissioned Innovas/K-Matrix to undertake research and were consulted in the design of the research contradicts the advice that the department purchased an existing off-the-shelf product from the company/companies. For example, the advice in Appendix D, section 11, argues that “…regardless of the supplier of the database the Department would merely be a licensee of the intellectual property subsisting in the database and would be subject to the requirements of the FOI Act. If the Department were to pay for the data to be publicly available the costs would be significantly higher”.

The claim that the department purchased a licence to existing intellectual property seems to be untenable. The LCEGS reports, authored by the company themselves speak about the work being commissioned by the department, and designed according to its specification. Either the information in the report or the arguments offered by the department to explain its refusal to let me see the data are false.

Moreover, it would seem that while the department intended to make data available to business and non-profit organisations, critics of government policy or anyone simply wanting to understand the department’s “policy and strategy development” would be denied the opportunity, creating a problem for the department’s claim to be ‘set[ting] data free’. “The publication of the data is part of the coalition’s commitment to set data free by publishing it in a convenient format to enable business and non-profit organisations to use it easily and at minimal cost” (Appendix D, 2.i). Evidently, the intention was to put data into the public domain that would enable the promotion of certain policies, but not data that might reveal what was in fact meant by the term ‘Low Carbon and Environmental Goods and Services’.

In spite of the department’s claim that the research in question was not publically funded, at least £125,000 has been spent by the department on producing revisions of the report, which is only “one element of the contract” (Appendix D, section 5) between the department and Innovas/K-Matrix. It would seem that this report has been useful in the promotion — if not the design — of certain policies by the department itself and other organisations such as the CBI (“The Colour of Growth” report, 2012 – http://www.cbi.org.uk/media/1552876/energy_climatechangerpt_web.pdf ) and the REA (“Renewable Energy: Made in Britain” report, 2012 – http://www.r-e-a.net/resources/pdf/61/Renewable_Energy_-_Made_in_Britain_Executive_Summary.pdf). I note also that the London Mayor’s office has used the same data.

The department seems, by commissioning the work, to have effectively both created a market for the research, and marketed the company’s product and services to the wider governmental, third-sector, business associations and companies with an interest in environmental policies.

This in turn suggests that a much closer working relationship between the department and the company exists, again belying the department’s statements that an off-the-shelf product existed before it engaged the company to produce its research.

The research designed by BIS and completed by Innovas/K-Matrix has, at the very least, influenced the wider public debate. Meanwhile, claims made in that debate have been protected from scrutiny and criticism by a ‘paywall’ — the department’s claim to be protecting a third party’s intellectual property and commercial interests. In order to challenge the government’s policies, the advice that the department produces, or the arguments produced by other organisations in the wider public debate, it would be necessary to buy access to the database, and a licence to reproduce it for public consumption — something that is clearly beyond the means of most individuals and organisations.

In summary, it is clearly the case that the LCEGS sector has no meaning to anyone who lacks access to the complete list of column headings from the database, yet this research has influenced the direction of public policy. Thus, if transparent policymaking is important, there is a real public interest in releasing this part (column headings) of the research in question. I believe that the department’s ‘public interest test’ has not been reasonable, and that the department’s claim that the database is the intellectual property of Innovas/K-Matrix is at best incomplete, possibly misleading and certainly opaque. Furthermore, I believe that the responses to my requests for information have not been conducted in the spirit of the FOI Act. Finally, I believe that refusal to release data on the basis of protecting commercial interests is at best disingenuous, and raises serious questions about the use of third party research to advance policy decisions and arguments.

I would also like to draw your attention to the inclusion of my name in correspondence between the department and Innovas/K-Matrix. I believe that I am entitled to the same privacy that the department granted to individuals at the department and at the company, whose names were redacted in the correspondence between them, sent to me following my second request.

I look forward to your reply,

An outbreak of thinking has occurred at the Guardian. In response to George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, Steven Poole observes that the ‘pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, and that it reflects a regressive form of politics. Poole doesn’t make too big a deal of the politics, but highlights a parallel between the hand-wringing about invasive species, and immigration. It seems Poole’s point, however, is less that this congruence has any major significance, but that it’s riddled with contradictions and inconsistency — as so much nature-worship surely is — and is a bit, well, daft.

What irks Monbiot about the insatiable hunger for lebensraum of “invasive species” is, finally, just that they will make everything duller to the eyes of naturalist aesthetes. “There is a danger,” he writes, “that ecosystems everywhere come to contain a similar set of species, making the world a blander and less surprising place.” Indeed, the spark of his desire for “rewilding” is, as he readily confesses in his intellectually generous and disarmingly enthusiastic book, that it would bring him more aesthetic pleasure. He came to the idea in the first place because he felt “ecologically bored”. What could, on the other hand, be less boring than seeing the sabre-toothed tiger roaming the streets of Shoreditch, the hippo snoozing outside the Hippodrome?

Monbiot, on cue, is livid at having been compared to racists. ‘I love nature. For this I am called bourgeois, romantic – even fascist‘, he complains. But to be fair to his critics, Monbiot did discover his ‘bourgeois inner self‘ only last Christmas. This leaves him trying only to defend himself against the charge of romantic fascism.

But there is a strange tension in this defence. On the one hand, Monbiot wants to hold with the aesthetic view of nature…

I see a love for the diversity and richness of nature as an aesthetic and cultural impulse identical to the love of art. It is a form of culture as refined and intense as any other, yet those who profess it tend to be regarded as nerds, not connoisseurs (that’s true snobbery for you). Poole and people like him position themselves among the philistines – those who see no value in the wonders with which others are enchanted.

… but on the other, Monbiot is saving the planet…

So those of us whose love of the natural world is a source of constant joy and constant despair, who wish to immerse ourselves in nature as others immerse themselves in art, who try to defend the marvels that enthrall us, find ourselves labelled – from the Mail to the Guardian – as romantics, escapists and fascists. That, I suppose, is the price of confronting the power of money.

… from the power of money.

So George’s aesthetic preferences are given global, and political signifiance by nothing more than his emotional attachment to an idealised account of nature. Whether or not that counts as ‘fascism’ depends on how far he is willing to defend this notion of a wild nature. He doesn’t say. But it’s certainly Romantic, nonetheless, with just one exception — Monbiot’s appeal to science.

Comparing those who describe [invasive species] to racists is the intellectual equivalent of stating that evolution through natural selection is a coded attack on the welfare state, or that the first law of thermodynamics was hatched by green campaigners intent on conserving energy. It is to see the words but not to understand the science they describe. This fallacy – mistaking scientific findings for cultural concepts – was deliciously ripped apart by Alan Sokal’s satirical paper Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.

It is something of an irony that Monbiot would admit that his aesthetic preferences for nature is equivalent to a love of art, but then invoke Sokal’s criticism of those who conflate scientific and cultural ‘concepts’. The nature Monbiot witnesses is scientific fact, he protests. The further irony being that biological determinists like Monbiot, are bound to reproduce the excesses of postmodernism in perfect mirror image. All culture is, on the biological perspective, nothing more than the expression of some gene or other. After all, it is environmentalists like him that want to impose a political order, seemingly determined by science, over all culture, including, of course, money.

I find it hard to let the problem of invasive species ruin my sleep. They are, in reality a problem for some government department or association of people whose lives it may affect — most likely farmers. They are not front page news. They are a fact of life in a world in which geography matters less, as does the ‘balance’ of nature, if it ever even existed. They’re a side effect of the most incredible period in history: the expansion of transport and technology — things that make Monbiot’s indulgence of the natural world possible. Without them, he’d find nature, as ‘red in tooth and claw’, and his life, ‘nasty brutish and short’.

Someone else with a comprehensively daft view of the world is Stephen Emmott. Geoff Chambers did a good job of debunking Emmott here a while back, and has continued at his own blog with some more posts following the media’s thirst for his Oxford-University-accredited doomsaying.

As many have observed, Emmott’s prophecy shouldn’t cause much concern outside padded cells. It’s tempting to say that it’s sufficiently nutty for the Guardian to have realised it. Indeed, The Guardian have reproduced Chris Goodall’s fairly comprehensive criticism of it, from his Carbon Commentary blog. Says Goodall:

Stephen Emmott’s book on global ecological challenges is attracting much attention. The work is extremely short – perhaps about 15,000 words – and is in the form of notes that provide terse commentary on a series of graphs. It is little more than a Powerpoint presentation turned into a slim paperback. Although any attempt to increase mankind’s alarm at the threat from climate change is welcome, Emmott’s book is error-strewn, full of careless exaggeration and weak on basic science. Its reliance on random facts pulled from the internet is truly shocking and it will harm the cause of environmental protection. As might be expected, the best sceptic bloggers are already deconstructing its excesses line-by-line.

This blog is in its seventh year of line-by-line deconstructions of the excesses of environmental alarmism. They have all been unpicked. The only thing that seems new in the climate debate is that it is now the case that some environmentalists seem to be taking their less cautious colleagues to task. But the value of this new reflectivity amongst the environmentalists is limited. They want to sustain their cake and eat it:

Things are indeed pretty bad. The steps to address climate change are lamentably slow and ineffectual. Biodiversity is in sharp decline in some parts of the world. Water supplies are becoming tighter in many countries. The pressures on global forests are declining but still acute in some places. Air quality is appalling in big cities in Asia and quite bad in major Western capitals. But we don’t help solve these problems by exaggerating their seriousness and picking up gobbets of data from dodgy sources we found on the web.

It’s as though these were new problems. It’s as if no human had ever thought about water shortage or air pollution. These problems have solutions. Where they have been experienced in other parts of the word, they have been remedied without the need for restraint. And in spite of Goodall’s call for arguments to be constructed from more reliable provenance, there is no interrogation of environmentalism’s concepts, such as ‘biodiversity’ — as nebulous and pseudo-scientific an idea as has ever been conceived of.

Elsewhere in the Guardian’s digital pages, the ‘Political Science’ blog is running a series of pieces this week on the precautionary principle. It started on Monday, with professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, Andy Stirling defending the idea, which is a stellar example of how paying people to think often ends up with no more a positive result than leading a horse to water. (And perhaps flogging it later on).

But, in the end, the picture is quite optimistic. Far from the pessimistic caricature, precaution actually celebrates the full depth and potential for human agency in knowledge and innovation. Blinkered risk assessment ignores both positive and negative implications of uncertainty. Though politically inconvenient for some, precaution simply acknowledges this scope and choice. So, while mistaken rhetorical rejections of precaution add further poison to current political tensions around technology, precaution itself offers an antidote – one that is in the best traditions of rationality. By upholding both scientific rigour and democratic accountability under uncertainty, precaution offers a means to help reconcile these increasingly sundered Enlightenment cultures.

This is followed by Tracy Brown of Sense About Science, with a more compelling argument that The Precautionary Principle is a Blunt Instrument:

However simple we might wish managing uncertainty about the future to be, it’s not. The precautionary principle misleads us into thinking it is. Its advocates arm-wave about complexity and the unknown future, but they are producing a response that implies the exact opposite. In place of informed, real-world choices that include the potential implications of both doing something and not doing it, we have simplistic bans, precaution’s monotonous answer to every challenge.

But like Goodall’s reply to Emmott, this too fails to interrogate the context in which the precautionary principle has developed:

A world of over seven billion people faces some pretty complex questions about the trade-offs involved in producing food, using resources, reducing disease and achieving the societies and environments in which we want to live. […] In agriculture, energy and so much more we need big changes, even if some people do want to stop the world and get off. Realistically, to make these changes needs an approach to innovation that is permissive and watchful – that is, one that takes more responsibility – rather than banning and assuming you’ve done good, which is the real hubris here.

Why is a world of seven billion people (or more) understood to face bigger, more and more complex challenges than a world of just six, five, four or three billion people? In spite of the growth in our populations, there are far fewer people struggling to survive (hence there are so many more people), and there are more than ever people whose day-to-day challenges consist of no more than ‘where can I plug my iPod in?’. It is increasingly the case that there is less and less need for global institutions to oversee the production of food and resources. Yet the idea that there is ever more need dominates debates. There’s little point in challenging the precautionary principle without taking a critical view of its context and the issues to which it has been applied. After all, the idea is not new, yet achieved more purchase as a basis for new global, environmental political institutions was being sought. Coincidence?

Speaking of new global institutions seeking a legitimising basis, Roger Pielke Jr. Tweets…

Apparently, this proposal by scientists to stand above governments in an “Earth League” is not a spoof –> https://t.co/tB7dsmWeLu

The link takes us to the following document:

The Earth League
Towards a Global Research & Assessment Alliance

Humankind has become a quasi-geological force on Planet Earth. Our species is the most successful ever, still growing in numbers and absorbing more and more natural resources for its industrial metabolism, which is largely based on fossil fuels and other dwindling stocks. As a consequence, societies around the world are currently witnessing severe crises that call for a “Great Transformation” toward sustainability. Climate change might be understood as just one manifestation of the emerging complex problem or as a driver. Many other challenges such as the distortion of ecosystem services, the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of land, sprawling urbanization, worsening water scarcity, the disturbances in terrestrial and marine food chains or the ubiquitous pollution of all environmental systems have to be taken into consideration.

It seems the convenors of The Earth League (Da daa daaa!) believe that there is not a sufficient global organisation to direct research into the natural world, or, more precisely, the effects of human society (aka ‘our species’) on it. A more concise account of what The Earth League (Da Daa Daaa!) aims to be is given at the Imperial College website:

Imperial welcomed the inaugural meeting of the Earth League, a voluntary alliance of scientists addressing earth science and sustainability challenges

The inaugural meeting of the Earth League, a voluntary alliance of leading scientists and institutions addressing earth science and sustainability challenges, took place at Imperial College London yesterday, 7 February 2013.

The world should, by now, be used to pompous, self-regarding planet-savers convening meetings. And it should be bored of them. Some familiar themes emerge…

This international group of prominent scientists from world class research institutions will work together to respond to some of the most pressing issues faced by humankind, as a consequence of climate change, depletion of natural resources, land degradation and water scarcity.

By coming together in a self-organized alliance, the Earth League members will be a united voice in the global dialogue on planetary issues.

League members will meet annually to discuss a key earth science and sustainability issue in depth, using their combined expertise to assess the various solutions available. The findings from these discussions will be used to initiate new research activities or communicate new knowledge to high-level decision makers.

[…]

At the official launch at Imperial College London the League called for a step change in sustainable living, arguing that truly transformational strategies would be needed to overcome the climate crisis and the many other pressing issues facing humankind today.

Because there has never been a global meeting of global scientists to discuss global issues of global sustainability before.

And not with these people, either…

  • Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, UK (Sir Brian Hoskins);Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil (Carlos Nobre)
  • Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, London, UK (Lord Nicholas Stern)

Because the world has not heard enough from the likes of Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Nicholas Stern, there needs to be another talking shop, where these bureaucrats-posing-as-scientists can, like Emmott, and like Monbiot, and pretty much like their new critics (their erstwhile comrades) carry on doomsaying.

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